It’s one of those strange ironies of the modern age that competition prizes have somehow become more valuable and yet less valued. Chances are that you will have already scrolled past three offers to send the five hundred and thirty first person to retweet this message a sufficient quantity of iPads to make The Bumpkin Billionaires head for the hills this morning alone; in contrast, the sheer level of envy that would meet ownership of local radio branded pens and bugs acquired on the basis of confirming who the singer with the pop group Brother Beyond was down a crackly phone line – which you later found out nobody you knew had heard anyway – is beyond the scope of scientific evaluation. This is why so many have such strong attachments to t-shirts, ring binders and indeed albums that they more than likely would not have owned had they not won them in a competition.
Although I still own Streetsounds 17, I’d more or less forgotten about my brief moment of celebrity as a Smash Hits competition winner until I stumbled across the list of Streetsounds 17-baggers with my name it whilst browsing old issues of Smash Hits as background research for a feature on Now – The Summer Album (which you can now find here). Although they were widely regarded as somewhere between a hip Mirage-glugging neon and chrome nightclub affectation and an impenetrable chart averse bafflement at the time, the Streetsounds series of albums have since developed a deserved cult following and it was hard to resist the temptation to revisit it in a world where most of the featured artists are lost even to barrel-scraping streaming services. It’s actually a more interesting compilation than this slightly flippant in places feature might suggest, although in fairness it was difficult to avoid the opportunity to scoff affectionately at the eighties idea of ‘style’; incidentally, this is slightly longer than the original published version, with some comments on the bewildering sleevenotes reinstated. You can find more on eighties pop music and haphazard compilations in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
In 1986, I won a competition in Smash Hits. Though I’m not really quite sure of how and why I did.
Rather than the can of Citrus Spring autographed by Phil Cool that you might well be expecting, the prize in question was a copy of Streetsounds 17. As the name suggests, this was the the seventeenth instalment in the Streetsounds label’s lengthy series of compilations of hot new electro, hip-hop and breakbeat tracks. Despite having more than a passing interest in the genre, and being the proud owner of K-Tel’s surprisingly strong if slightly dubiously promoted Rap It Up collection, I don’t recall ever being particularly desperate to get hold of this or indeed any other edition of Streetsounds. Scanning the lists of winners of other competitions in the same issue, I suspect that I may actually have been after the 12″ of Rockin’ With Rita by Vindaloo Summer Special, and had just entered the Streetsounds 17 one on a whim due to having a spare stamp.
In order to win a copy, you were challenged to explain, in an essay lasting no longer than five words, why Prince was so short. “The effects of Purple Rain“ was my aaaaahhh-tastic pseudo-satirical response, which clearly amused Sylvia Patterson and company sufficiently for them to send me one of the fifty copies on offer. It arrived before the issue with the list of winners came out, in fact, and once it did hit the ‘newsstands’ I became something of a minor celebrity in school for a week or so. We had to make our own ‘trending’ in those days.
I was reminded of this while I scouring 1986 issues of Smash Hits as research for a feature on about Now – The Summer Album (which you can now find here). Sadly, I don’t actually have the issue itself any more – a shame as it was the one with the brilliant feature on where the money that you spent on records actually went – but here’s that list of winners in full. It’s particularly interesting to see that the other lucky entrants included one ‘Scott Walker’. There was such a prominent electro influence on Tilt after all.
While that issue of Smash Hits may have long since disappeared into the great magazine-based Bermuda Triangle of the rest of your family denying all knowledge of what might have happened to it, I do still have Streetsounds 17 itself. Not that I really remember very much about it; like all of the Streetsounds label’s billions of releases, it was aimed primarily at hip DJs and people playing at being hip DJs, and intended as a way of getting hold of hot new tracks cheaply and easily rather than an actual coherent listening experience; a level of coherency reflected in the sleevenotes, which veer uneasily between bullying PR speak braggadocio, pseudo Smash Hits sardonic ‘misappropriation’ of language, sloganeering straight out of the decade that brought you ‘Golden Wonder – Britain’s Noisiest Crisps!’, attempts at hip to rank with the contemporaneous Fizzy Vimto ad and when the Weetabix Skinheads were repositioned as ‘breakdancers’, and a confusingly worded something or other about the album including the current hits before they were actually hits yet. It sounds baffling and compelling at the same time. So there’s really not much of an excuse for not giving it another spin, is there?
Streetsounds 17 has an indistinct photo of an anonymous street funkateer in a long mac on the cover, and this sense of anonymity also extends to its contents. Many of the featured acts are so low-profile and little-remembered that it’s virtually impossible to find an actual photo of them, and only three of the featured tracks resemble even anything approaching a hit single. Janet Jackson’s often overlooked second hit Nasty might seem a surprising inclusion for such a radically urban and cutting edge series, but it was also a good deal harsher sounding than her usual fare; which is probably the reason why it’s often overlooked, in fact. This is even more true of the 12″ Extended Version included here, which strips it down to some suitably nasty-sounding beats that feel a lot closer to mid-eighties hardcore rap than mid-eighties Motown slickness.
Plenty of slickness can nonetheless be found on Step By Step by T.C. Curtis, the Jheri Curl-sporting synth-funk polymath who somehow failed to break through to mainstream success, despite appearing at the end of side two of every below-par Now! That’s What I Call Music rip-off in existence (and indeed the original Now Dance itself, which you can find out more about here). Step By Step may be presented here in an exclusive ‘Streetsounds Remix’, but it’s still true to say that if you did ever catch one of those end-of-side-two tracks, then you’ll have a fair idea of what this likeable but undistinguished mid-paced hoarse-voiced workout sounds like. It’s worth noting that a now somewhat unfortunate yodel starts to creep in towards the end, though.
If we’re being honest about it, though, most of you will probably have no idea of who T.C. Curtis even was, and if we’re positing him as the third most famous artist featured on Streetsounds 17 (we’ll get to the second later) then you’ve got some sense of just how obscure the others actually are. Sharp-suited Oran ‘Juice’ Jones-alike Michael Jonzun, who throws a hefty helping of vogueish Nu Shooz-esque ‘barking dog’ voice samples into Can’t Fool Us, and Give Me Up non-hitmaker Beau Williams, whose primary gimmick was to fool you into thinking he was singing about a girl when he was actually singing about God, do at least have something approaching a traceable career path. As do Skipworth And Turner, the duo behind the energetic ‘Streetsounds Exclusive Edit’ of Children’s ITV Game Show-friendly-synth-festooned Can’t Give Her Up, whose main contribution to musical history was giving Kenny Thomas another hit nobody asked for by writing Thinking About Your Love. Actually, apparently they’re different songs, but I couldn’t be bothered checking and anyway, there’s no point allowing the opportunity for a good Kenny Thomas gag to go by.
Beyond that, though, we’re adrift in a fathomless factual void of sequinned jackets and Yamaha DX7s. Colors, the unimaginatively-named outfit responsible for the Mario Kart backing music-like Pay Me Back My Love, may possibly have featured veteran session singer Vaneese Thomas but nobody seems to be quite sure. Given that it opens with the same sort of over-extemporising saxophone as any given mid-eighties US TV show, and continues in a suitably mediocre sub-Al Jarreau style, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Cargo, whose Love You So (Without You) is yet another ‘Streetsounds Exclusive Mix’ (‘featuring Dave Collins’), were as American as they came. Yet, bafflingly, the credits seem to indicate they were not just UK-based but actually led by veteran beardy jazzers Mike Carr and Dick Morrissey. Meanwhile, Sleeque have fallen so far off the factual radar that they might as well not have even existed, which is a shame as their sturdy proto-Acid Jazz stomper One For The Money, with its amusing interpolation of the lyrics from Blue Suede Shoes, is the best track on here by some considerable distance.
Former disco ensemble who’d moved with the times Zapp, whose Computer Love (Extended Version) was presumably not a tribute to Zzap!64, sit uneasily somewhere between the two as they seem to have been around for several thousand years without anyone actually noticing them. On the evidence of this ‘dreamy’ soundscape that clocks in at nearly ten minutes without offering a single robot voice, this is hardly surprising. It’s doubtful that it would even have appealed to nominally music-averse sci-fi fans because ‘space’.
Right at the end, however, comes the ‘Special Extended Remix’ of Set Me Free by Birmingham’s own Jaki Graham. Seemingly hovering around the charts for the entirety of 1986, even the regular version of Set Me Free was already a touch overlong and repetitive, so making it even longer still seems like an act of wilful obnoxiousness verging on madness. That’s how they did ‘remixes’ back then, though, and frankly it’s exactly what we want here. Turning a likeable if lightweight spot of full-throated jazz-funk into something approaching art terrorism exemplifies both everything that was wrong and everything that was right about mid-eighties pop music at the same time, and stands out way more than any of the seemingly endless procession of seemingly endless pleasant enough in-one-ear-and-out-of-the-other exhortations for swanky types in Midnight Starr-inspired clobber to get on down on the dancefloor that you’ll find elsewhere on the album.
The regular version of Set Me Free did of course appear on Now! That’s What I Call Music 7, which in addition to being a hugely listenable vivid and vibrant snapshot of the diversity of the mid-eighties pop charts, is also the very best Now! album bar none. Yes it is. Stop arguing. Yet for all their wilful angularness, we should be glad that the likes of Streetsounds and the Indie Top 20 series existed, as they’re probably the only way of really accurately measuring what went on beyond the Top Forty short of inventing a time machine and posing as Eugene Wilde. A pose that no doubt involved reclining forward into the camera lens with a satin jacket and a huge grin.
So, that’s how I ended up with Streetsounds 17 instead of Rockin’ With Rita. Only one of them ultimately inspired me to write a book, though. And it wasn’t the one with T.C. Curtis…
Buy A Book!
If you want to read more of my Smash Hits memories, then you’ll definitely enjoy Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle store here.
We Are Very Quiet Persons Who Do Not Like To Brag is a feature on the huge influence that Smash Hits – and Sylvia Patterson in particular – had on me as a writer; you can find it here.
You can hear more about the actual hitmakers of 1986 – sadly not including T.C. Curtis – in the Looks Unfamiliar Top Of The Pops Extra here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.